Sunday, October 14, 2018

Stockbridge, Hampshire

Staging post

I’d never looked properly at Stockbridge before, and when I finally stopped for a walk round I was struck by it in several ways. ‘A walk round’ is not quite the right phrase in Stockbridge, because the place is basically a single long street, which you walk up and down. It gives them impression, with its generous width, its imposing Town Hall, and its landmark hotel, that’s it’s the High Street and market place of somewhere much larger. As you walk along you go over bridges – you’re never far away from moving water because the place stands on various branches of the River Test, fast-flowing, trout-rich, and beloved of fishermen for centuries.

So this street is very much what Stockbridge is about, and not just because it’s so impressive but also because it must once have been an important travel route. Coaches travelling west out of London would mostly have travelled on roads that lie further north – through Andover, say, or Newbury – to head for Bristol, Bath, and the far West. But someone in the 18th or 19th centuries wanting to go to Salisbury, or on down to Weymouth, beloved of George III and those who travelled in his wake, might well have travelled through Stockbridge.

They could have stayed at this inn, the Grosvenor, which is early-19th century, built of yellow brick, and sash windowed. Its stand-out feature, the one that stopped me in my tracks, is this large porch. Its bowed front is big and the windows are huge. There must be a very light, grand upper room in there, with a ceiling higher than those on either side, as one can see by comparing the window heights and positions. The slender Doric columns shelter a commodious ground floor area through which you could almost drive a car. Or at a small carriage, enabling passengers to alight in the dry and get quickly indoors for a side of beef or a bumper of sherry.*

No doubt the porch also did its work sheltering passers-by from the rain and wind. Now its job seems to be to house tables and chairs for afternoon tea. Not the only place, as I discovered, where it’s possible to sit, enjoy refreshments, and watch the passing pedestrians and traffic, which the day I was there included no carriages, but what was to me a pleasing selection of classic cars. The High Street still seems to be a well used road, if more for local and leisure traffic than for those travelling long distance, who nowadays sacrifice urban scenery for speed, and make for the faster-moving A303.

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*Or if you couldn’t quite drive underneath it, you could at least pull in at the front, and your passengers would be undercover in an instant.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Portishead, Somerset

Where the light is right

The small, sturdy metal structure of Black Nore Lighthouse was put up in 1894, to assist shipping in the Severn Estuary. It flashed every ten seconds to guide countless vessels towards and away from the harbour at Bristol, until it was taken out of service in 2010. It originally had a clockwork drive mechanism and this was only replaced with electric motors in the year 2000. Although this light is no longer needed, there’s another not far away at Battery Point, which still guides ships.

Fortunately, the lighthouse has been preserved (it now belongs to a trust that looks after it), so I could find it the other day when I was in Portishead to give a talk and arrived – as is my wont – much too early. I’m a great advocate of arriving early for meetings and talks, as it usually gives me the opportunity to have a look round somewhere and, as often as not, find some interesting bit of architecture or structure. I especially like the metal cross rods, attached with screw threads and nuts to the bit of metalwork in the centre, shown in my lower photograph.

So I was pleased to have a little time here, to find this relic – even if the sun was obscured by clouds and the scene looked a little more gloomy than I’d have hoped for. Light is as vital for photography as for navigation.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire

Look on my works…

Churchyards are often interesting places and you never know quite what you might find in them. Having admired a number of memorials in the churchyard at Hurstbourne Tarrant, including some near the church that dated to the early 19th century, I walked towards the northern edge of the graveyard, through trees, and up a considerable slope. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going as I picked my way through windfall apples. What I found was a further section of churchyard, screened from the church by the trees, and at its far edge this mausoleum, with classical pilasters and a pyramidal roof, itself almost hidden by vegetation.

At first I thought I’d found a bit more funerary architecture of the Regency period, a squire’s tomb of c. 1820, perhaps, with a nod to the Egyptian taste on a firm classical base with a couple of bands of rusticated masonry. But there was something not quite right about it. Weren’t those wrought-iron gates with their curvaceous metalwork rather Art Nouveau in appearance? And inside I made out a plaque recording a death in 1935. Yes: didn’t the details look a bit like 1930s Georgian revival in places?

They did. There seemed to be nothing about the building in the church, nothing in my old Pevsner volume*, and, when I got home, it didn’t seem to be listed either. Odd. Eventually I turned up the story in an online copy of an old newspaper, the wonderfully named Kingston Daily Gleaner, for February 23, 1935.†

At some point in the early 1930s, Henry Wykey Prosser was told by a London specialist that he had less than five years to live. He immediately began putting his affairs i order, a process that involved drawing up a will providing a fund of £2000 so that elderly residents of Hurstbourne Tarrant could have Christmas provisions and leaving the then considerable sum of £100,000 to his housekeeper (provided that she remained unmarried and continued to live in his house). His last years were also spent supervising the construction of this mausoleum.

The newspaper records that although Prosser spent a lot of money improving his house and estate, he was not well liked in the village, because he was constantly arguing with local people, particularly about rights of way, drove a hard bargain, and went to law if he did not get his way. He was also obsessed with security, overseeing a nightly ritual of door locking and shuttering before taking his loaded revolver to bed with him.

The position of the mausoleum at the far end of the churchyard at the top of the slope suited Prosser because he could see it from his house – and keep an eye on its builders without leaving home. For visitors, however, it means that this little structure, which down near the church would look bulky and assertive, is out of the way – and for many I’m sure, completely unregarded. The atmosphere felt for me like one of those lesser known London cemeteries – Nunhead, say – where among the ivy and leaning gravestones, one comes across the mausoleum of some Victorian worthy, once famous or notorious, now forgotten. Look on my works, ye mighty…

*Note to self: I must invest in the updated edition.

†Yes, a Jamaica newspaper. Postscript: One of my readers wonders whether Kingston, Jamaica, was named after the Duke of Kingston, of Thoresby Hall: She notes: ‘He was still an Earl in 1703. He was a (very?) rich man, and a Tillemans painting of him of c. 1726 shows him with a black servant… Very possibly, he was a plantation owner/slave trader. He laid out a vast landscape at Thoresby on the 1700s.’ If anyone knows more about him, this reader would love to know more, so did please reply via the Comments section of this blog.

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A couple of other unexpected things in churchyards: a bee shelter and a beautiful sculpted seat.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


On the move (3): Scriven’s Conduit

Just a few yards from the building in my previous post is another structure that has been relocated from its original site. This ornate octagonal pavilion is Scriven’s Conduit, built in 1636 in Southgate Street in the centre of Gloucester as part of the city’s water supply. It displays a wonderful mix of architectural styles, Gothic rubbing shoulders with Classicism in a way not unusual in the 17th century. The top was rebuilt in 1705 and originally bore a finial featuring Jupiter Pluvius (Jupiter in his role as rain-bringer) pouring water on to Sabrina (the goddess of the Severn). Although this has now gone, there are still some magnificent lion masks and some very worn roundels depicting notable trades found in Gloucester. Like the King’s Board, it was taken down when no longer needed in the city centre and moved. It went to Edgeworth Manor before returning to Gloucester, this time to the site in Hillfield Gardens where it remains to this day. Gloucester, an ancient city that has lost much through redevelopment, actually preserves quite a lot of historic architecture – several medieval churches, some friary buildings, its great dock warehouses, not to mention its magnificent cathedral. Search a little further, and, as I hope this and my previous post have helped to show, it’s amazing what riches the city discloses.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


On the move (2): The King’s Board

My second example* of a building on the move is a small building known as the King’s Board, which now stands in Hillfield Gardens in Gloucester. You can just see it from the road as you pass the gardens and when I’d driven past previously I’d taken it for some elaborate garden seat or gazebo built by the owners of Hillfield House, Gloucester’s grandest Victorian house and now occupied, I think, by offices – an effective and unusual garden feature, indeed, which it still is.

However this little building did not begin life as a gazebo. Originally it was in the centre of the city and looked quite different, because the arches, which now make up the sides of a polygon, were once arranged in a straight line along the front of a rectangular building. This rectangular building can be seen in Kip’s engraving (c. 1710) of Gloucester and had been in Westgate Street (one of the city’s four main streets named for points of the compass). It had been a butter market and was reputed to have been given to the city by Richard II. By Kip’s time the roof had been altered to house a water cistern but by 1750 it had been taken down and relocated. After several more relocations, including a spell in the grounds of Tibberton Court, northwest of Gloucester) it was moved yet again to its current site in 1937. It’s not known for sure at which of these moves it was remodelled as a polygon rather than a rectangle.

No doubt its polygonal form, the fact that it once had a cross on the roof, and the religious relief carvings it bears fuelled the tradition that it began life as a preaching cross, though the rectangular layout shown in the 1710 engraving – and the fact that archaeology has confirmed this – put paid to that theory. Medieval markets often bore crosses and religious imagery too. The sculptures are charming. They cover the story of Christ’s Passion, including the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and other subjects. Although partly restored and even so highly worn, they preserve plenty of detail – the crenellated walls of the city, the monkey, St Peter’s keys, for example are all visible in the image of the entry into Jerusalem in my lower picture. The King’s Board is still highly effective in offering interest and shelter, some 80 years after it was re-erected here.

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*Following my post about Carfax Conduit, in Oxfordshire, here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire

On the move (1): A distant prospect of Carfax Conduit

I went to Nuneham Courtenay to look at the church and, as so often happens, saw something else as well – or at least caught sight of something else. Nuneham Courtenay is home to a large 18th-century house, built by the first Earl Harcourt, who famously displaced the village to make his garden and park, inspiring Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village in the process. Although the house is much altered, the nearby church built by the earl is not. It’s a gem of the classical revival, to which I will return. I’d been reminded of it by the Heritage Open Days leaflet for Oxford and, as I was in the city, I drove out to Nuneham, parked (almost certainly in the wrong place) and made my visit. I expect I’ll do a post about the church soon.

Then I decided to have a walk and find this other, still more surprising building. I suspect, having parked in the wrong place, I missed the helpful person from Heritage Open Days who’d have directed me, and having set out, I came up to a gate with a very serious notice saying ‘Wildlife protection area. No admittance’. Another path seemed to lead to an impassable stream. Running out of time, I turned back to retrace my tips and go home when I saw in the distance the building I was looking for.

It’s Carfax Conduit, and was originally built in 1617 as part of a scheme to supply the city of Oxford with fresh water. Its name comes from Carfax, the crossroads at the centre of Oxford where the building was sited at the end of an underground pipe that led from a spring on a hill at North Hinksey, outside the city. Being able to get clean water from the tank in the Carfax building would have been a health-giving boon to most city residents, who had no private water supply of their own and had to rely on a medieval system that by this time was leaky and dysfunctional. Although I didn’t get close to the conduit this time, I could make out quite a bit of the detail. The overall design is rather like a medieval market cross – or, as the listing text has it, a Renaissance version of such a structure. The square lower section is plain, with very simple pilasters and mouldings; it’s mostly 18th-century, replacing the original structure that housed the water tank. The upper part is original, richly ornamented, and bristling with statuary and other carving. The Os and Ns are the initials of Otho Nicholson, who built the conduit, and the statues are a selection of mythical and historical figures.

Earl Harcourt snapped up the building when it was taken down in 1787, when it was deemed to be holding up traffic. Oxford got a smaller tank, the earl got a garden ornament, which he had re-erected where he’d planned to build a Gothic eye-catcher. The 18th-century taste for an interesting garden ornament resulted in a bit of creative preservation and posterity benefits too – even if it only manages to achieve a distant prospect of Carfax Conduit.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Irreplaceable at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

History and places

On Tuesday evening I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum for a dual celebration: to celebrate Historic England’s campaign Irreplaceable and to mark the publication of my new accompanying book, Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.* The idea of the campaign was to highlight and celebrate one hundred remarkable places that have in some way shaped the history of England. The public were asked to nominate their favourite historic places and a panel of ten expert judges¶ then took the thousands of nominations and reduced them to a list of one hundred, equally allocated over ten different thematic categories, from “Music and Literature” to “Power, Protest and Progress”. The result is a fascinating and diverse list of places, from obvious and internationally famous buildings such as Canterbury Cathedral and Windsor Castle to less well known sites, such as a rainy Jewish cemetery in Falmouth and some allotments in Wiltshire.

My job was to write something about each place and so create a book, illustrated with Historic England’s excellent photographs. It has been fascinating. Half the time I have been writing about places I know well, half the time about places and buildings that were new to me. The book we have produced is not a continuous history of England but a patchwork, reflecting not just the variety of the choices but also the many different ways of looking at history and at England in particular – cultural, social, military, industrial, technological, political, and so on and on.

The gathering at the V&A was well attended and convivial. We were honoured to have several distinguished speakers – Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A; Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England; Mark Hews, Chief Executive of Ecclesiastical;† and Rosie Ryder, Media Manager, Historic England. Among the many filling the main domed hall of the V&A were a good number of representatives of the one hundred places, including people who’d come to London from Durham, Rochdale, and Birkenhead. It was a great pleasure to meet many of these people and hear about their enthusiasm for ‘their’ places and the hard work that goes into maintaining and running all kinds of places, from museums to open-air swimming pools, from Bletchley Park to the Dreamland Theme Park in Margate. Everyone seemed pleased with the book, and I hope it plays its part in celebrating these wonderful sites, in telling their stories, and in highlighting in general the extraordinary diversity and richness of England’s historic places. 

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* Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places is published by Historic England. It is available from bookshops, the usual online sources, and from Historic England themselves. For more information, click on the book cover in the right-hand column.

¶ The expert judges (and their categories) were: Monica Ali (Music & Literature), Mary Beard (Loss & Destruction), George Clarke (Homes & Gardens), Will Gompertz (Art, Architecture & Sculpture), Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (Sport & Leisure), Bettany Hughes (Travel & Tourism), Tristram Hunt (Industry, Trade & Commerce), David Ison (Faith & Belief), David Olusoga (Power, Protest & Progress), and Lord Robert Winston (Science & Discovery).

† This whole project – campaign, book, and the celebration at the V&A itself – could not have happened without the support of in the insurance company Ecclesiastical. This company insures the majority of the Grade I listed buildings in England and donates its profits to charitable causes, including many heritage-related projects.